(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on Friday 27 February)
Nearly everyone operates behind some sort of a façade, so much so that it seems to take over – more real than the person who seeks its shelter and, in the process, all-but obliterating what and who is behind it. That’s true of the two people we meet in Willy Russell’s 1980 Educating Rita as well as those Frank and Rita mention while he tries to coach her to examination standard in the Open University literary criticism course for which he is a reluctant tutor.
When we take our seats in the theatre we are faced with two apparently solid walls of books, interspersed with the occasional artefact. The furniture is functional, not particularly comfortable-looking and well-used. Spotlights portraits of male 19th and 20th century writers (though Charlotte Brontë hangs on the central door) suggest academe at its most dishevelled. The stage corners show the lawns outside what one presumes to be high windows.
The set is designed by Juliet Shillingford; its solidity is reinforced by David W Kidd’s clever lighting. As Frank is changed by his mouthy hairdresser student even more than he refashions her, so that solidity fades until we are left to recognise that the carapace has indeed crumbled. It’s a telling and fine effect, the visual equivalent of verbal onomatopoeia.
Director Patrick Sandford has worked with both Samantha Robinson (Rita) and Dougal Lee (Frank) before and one senses the ease with which all three have sunk themselves into their respective roles. For my taste Robinson took her first couple of scenes far too fast; her Liverpudlian accent sounded impeccable but Rita’s non-stop verbal outpourings as tties to take stock of where she is and the man in front of her take a little time to make sense to a more southern-tuned ear.
Her Pygmalion-like transformation from a housewife marking time in a go-nowhere job until the babies arrive (something which her husband wants and she most emphatically does not) into an assured young woman who thinks, believes, speaks, behaves and dresses with complete confidence in a manner she previously never for a moment contemplated is absolutely convincing.
So, in its very different way, is Lee’s portrait of an unfulfilled-promise poet in his second failing relationship making a drink-sodden mess of the university post which he increasingly resents. You feel sorry for Frank, even if the chaos which surrounds him is very much of his own making, but our support is firmly for Rita. Their intellectual game of snakes and ladders is like any one which relies on the fall of the dice; Frank’s definition of “tragedy” as opposed to something which is merely “tragic” rings truer by the end of the play than is comfortable. For him, but also for us.
Educating Rita runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 14 March.